Developing climbing ability takes many forms as different types of climb have radically different physiological demands. Riders tend to generalise when it comes to climbing often labelling themselves at "good or not good" at climbing. What makes someone like Philippe Gilbert great at the short punchy classics climbs are not the same attributes that make Primož Roglič the current king of the Alps.
In this article I am going to focus on the short punchy classics style climbs or indeed many of the climbs we face in the UK. These climbs tend to be short, taking anywhere between 2 and 10 minutes to ride, and often have gradients in excess of 10%, sometimes reaching 20%+.
Clearly the steeper the climb the more power that is needed to maintain a given speed. Assuming that you are at an optimal weight, what do you need to do in training to improve on steep climbs?
These climbs place a great deal of importance on developing as high an absolute power as possible and the ability to produce power at maximum aerobic capacity.
Sounds hard.......and it is!
One of the things that many riders never train, due in part to modern easy gear set ups, is producing a lot of force through the pedals. Being able to produce power through the pedals at low cadence and high torque improves leg muscle composition and strength. You can build this strength in the gym too, but on the bike work will suffice for the vast majority of riders.
To start improving your leg strength begin by using the turbo to perform a series of short 2 minute intervals at 50-60rpm at around threshold power. Make sure that you warm up well and activate all the major muscles in the legs, including your glutes. For the short efforts keep seated, keep your upper body still, and really focus on utilising all the muscles in your legs to complete the pedal revolutions. As you improve you can increase the duration of the intervals to 5 minutes before you progress to the real hills. Keep some low cadence indoor work all season if you do not have any hills outside to practise on.
Hill Reps are the staple diet of improved short hill climbing. Before you complete any of the sessions below make sure that you have a very good aerobic base and have done plenty of work around your threshold. A thorough warm up, including some short hard efforts is important to increase blood flow and prime the muscles before these hard efforts.
Explosive Reps: Find a hill that takes 1-2 minutes to climb and come to a virtual stand still. Standing starts in a hard gear are an excellent way to improve fast twitch muscle development and explosive power. Explode out of the saddle for the first 10 pedal strokes and then sit down and ride at well above threshold power until you have crested the hill AND have started your descent. Ride easy for 4-5 minutes in between. Do as many reps until you feel the quality dropping.
Aerobic Capacity Reps: Find a slightly longer hill that takes around 3 minutes to climb. The aim of this workout is to improve your aerobic capacity. Roll to the start of the hill and ride 3-6 reps at MAX capacity. Take 8 minutes of recovery between efforts to fully recover before you go again. Really empty the tank on each and every effort. The aim is to average at 130-135% of FTP for a maximum of 18 minutes total work to really drive the aerobic system.
In/Out Saddle Versatility Reps: Find a slightly longer hill that takes 8-10 minutes and climb at threshold power alternating between being seated and riding out of the saddle. Do 20 pedal strokes in the saddle and 20 pedal strokes out of the saddle all the way to the top aiming to maintain speed. Do 4-6 reps with 5 minute recoveries. This is a great workout to develop climbing versatility as well as some upper body strength and resilience.
These are all hard workouts and you will make the most gains if you are fresh and rested and can give them your full commitment. With all of these workouts, hit the initial efforts as hard as you dare and accept that you will naturally tire and fade as the workout continues. People tend to want to 'pace' the sessions or go harder as they progress. Both of these approaches will be sub optimal for eliciting gains in strength. Go hardest when you are fresh and you will have to back it off as you tire. Done correctly you should feel the power totally drain away at some stage. Then you know you have given all you can.
Given you will complete this training on top of solid strength endurance, the specific focus here is improving the following:
Aim to complete 3 sessions of each of the above and then go test yourself on a local hill and see if you can bust your previous Strava PB!
Happy training and strong climbing everyone!
Rob Wakefield / Founder & Coach
firstname.lastname@example.org / 07779136840